LOUISVILLE, Ky. (ABP) — Roy Honeycutt, retired president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, died Dec. 21, one day after suffering head injuries in a fall at his home in Louisville, Ky. He was 78.
Honeycutt, a noted Old Testament scholar, was elected president of Southern Seminary, also in Louisville, in 1982. His 11-year tenure as president paralleled much of the controversy in the Southern Baptist Convention's conservative shift.
Pledging in 1982 to “look to the seminary's historic strength” to chart its course, Honeycutt affirmed his commitment for Southern “to be rooted in the Word of God, devoted to the centrality of the local church, and obedient to the call of Christ to evangelism, missions and preaching.”
Duke McCall, Honeycutt's predecessor as president of Southern, recalled that Honeycutt “functioned in a troubled time in which he was the irenic spirit trying to find middle ground and a solution to a situation where there was no middle ground.”
“He was a denominational statesman in the best sense of the word,” McCall added. “He served as an example to staff, faculty and students and was in all situations both the committed Christian and the man of God. It's a great pity that he couldn't find the solution that he longed for and sought.”
Honeycutt is remembered by many for one headline-making speech in 1984, when he declared “holy war” on the “hijackers,” a reference to conservative leaders leading the effort to gain control of the Southern Baptist Convention.
“Independent fundamentalists and many sincere but naïve individuals recruited to support their political party are seeking to hijack the Southern Baptist Convention,” Honeycutt warned. He said such efforts are “damaging local churches, risking the destruction of our denominational heritage and compromising our Christian witness to the world.”
Honeycutt immediately became a target in the controversy. As the seminary's board shifted to conservative control, he came under increased pressure to resign. He retired in 1993, at age 67, three years earlier than he planned.
His successor, Al Mohler, served as one of Honeycutt's assistants from 1983-1989 before becoming editor of the Georgia Baptist Christian Index but took the seminary in a decidedly conservative direction.
Describing his predecessor as “a Christian gentleman,” Mohler said, “He gave so much of his life to the Southern Baptist Convention and to Southern Seminary in particular. He led during difficult times and was not afraid of controversy. On a personal level, he was as gracious a human being as you could ever expect or hope to meet.”
Bill Leonard, dean and professor of church history at Wake Forest Divinity School, joined Southern's faculty in 1975, the same year Honeycutt was named dean of Southern's school of theology.
“In many ways, Roy was a bridge-builder,” Leonard recalled. “When the conflicts developed in the denomination and then in the board of trustees, it was not the season for bridge building.”
Honeycutt's efforts at bridge-building included working with the five other Southern Baptist Convention seminary presidents to draft the “Glorieta Statement” in 1986.
Adopted at the height of the SBC controversy, the Glorieta Statement declared the seminary presidents' commitment “to the resolution of problems which beset our beloved denomination.” The presidents added that “we are ready and eager to be partners in the peace process.” But the document was largely ignored by conservative leaders, who already controlled most of the seminaries' boards.
In 1991, Honeycutt worked with Southern trustees and faculty to produce a “Covenant Renewal” document that paved the way for faculty and trustees to cooperate in moving Southern Seminary in a more conservative direction. It ensured that only “conservative evangelical scholars” would be added to the faculty until the school “has achieved faculty balance.”
As Honeycutt tackled such issues, Leonard recalled there were people “who thought he was either too militant or not militant enough.”
“I think he did all that he could do, given the times and context, to stand for a certain type of Southern Baptist progressivism,” Leonard said. “In some ways, he was caught in trying to preserve a tradition and to preserve an institution that he feared might be lost altogether. That struggle shaped much of his tenure as president.”
Charles Barnes, a Southern Seminary trustee since 1992, emphasized that “we have lost an important Baptist leader” with Honeycutt's death.
Barnes, a former Kentucky Baptist Convention president, said Honeycutt “always impressed me as a scholarly Southern gentleman who loved the Lord and who was very kind to everyone.”
Honeycutt served as Southern's president “during a critical transition period,” Barnes added. “He tried to handle that in a gentlemanly, Christian fashion. He tried to guide the transition in a softer approach than what many others would have done.”
Honeycutt was a graduate of Mississippi College, Southern Seminary and the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Prior to being elected president in 1982, Honeycutt served as provost, theology school dean and professor of Old Testament at Southern. He previously was academic dean and chair of the Old Testament department at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo. He also was pastor of churches in Kentucky, Indiana and Mississippi.
Honeycutt and his wife, June, were longtime members of Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville. In addition to his wife, he is survived by two children, Roy Lee and Mary Anne.
His memorial service is scheduled for Dec. 23, at 11 a.m., at Crescent Hill. The family requested that memorial gifts be sent to Crescent Hill Baptist Church or Baptist World Alliance.